Perfection in the cinema consists in that knowledge that whatever happens there is a barrier between the film and reality.—François Truffaut, 1979
There are two kinds of Hollywood releases: relationship movies and 3D movies. If we cross-bred the two strains, we would have life, and could dispense with movies altogether. This may be where history is heading. I don’t make predictions.
Last year, the major studios, careening ever younger, catering to teenage boys and children of all ages, released twenty-seven films in 3D. Every major animated film now has a 3D release, as do most special-effects jobs. The much-discussed bottom line depends on it. Fewer individual movie tickets were sold in 2010, but overall ticket sales held just about even, thanks to the extra five or six dollars that 3D screenings cost.
It is somewhat notable that the thing that is supposed to save the movie industry by marketing its products as must-see cultural “experiences” does not, in the end, enhance the moviegoing experience as we know it. 3D is not an “extra” or an “add-on.” It is an aesthetic frenemy: an underminer. With its insistence on the impossible manufacture of presence, its eradication of the usual grammar of lighting and angle, its gleeful bursting of the fourth wall, it casts the flatness of the screen—the thing that makes a movie a movie—as a handicap to be overcome. It would be like a record company charging extra for scratch-and-sniff album tracks. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never left the multiplex thinking, Gee, I wish that movie had been more like a play. I guess I’ve always thought the flatness was the point.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to love about 3D. Like wearing glasses—that’s always fun. And seeing other people wear glasses. Also fun. Excitement palpitates in the audience like a mood wave when the first previews roll out, and—again with the glasses—you can fool around and make the picture flat and then round and then flat and then round again. And, of course, there’s the thrill of watching the great art form of the 20th century buckle to its knees. That is its own kind of pleasure.
Filmmakers, when they become filmmakers, take on the challenge of how to photograph space of all kinds—expanses deep or shallow but also wide; shapes like lines and curves; empty fields and cluttered ones; decisions about what kinds of things to fill space with so that we know how it extends, and how far the things in it are from each other. In most hands, 3D simplifies all of this. By extending the image out at the eye, usually by throwing a discrete object like a car or a fireball, it turns all space into inverted deep-focus. Instead of your eyeballs reaching back into something like a telescope and then rummaging around, the frame pops out and whacks you like a jack-in-the-box. Other kinds of space may or may not be created at the same time, but who could notice?
A lot of people like this, or sometimes like it, for the same reason that a lot of people like extremely realistic video games or prefer the technologically wrought lifelike to the movements of life recorded by technology. There is a can you believe they can do that? quality to the reception of things created only to be gaped at. It’s always especially fitting when science fiction goes 3D. Neat!, after all, is not only a contemporary aesthetic compliment, but the dominant discourse of popular science.
Must a 3D movie be seen in 3D? Is a movie with both a 3D and a 2D release the same movie or two different movies? The “high” and “low” culture divide that is emerging—with Thor and The Green Hornet on one side, and Avatar and Werner Herzog on the other—seems to track along these very lines. The “low” movies want to suggest that 3D is a fun extra feature, like a heated leather seat; the “high” art believes that 3D is a necessary condition of the film itself. But I don’t know if this is true. I would not have paid any amount of money, no matter how small, to see Tron: Legacy in two dimensions. The 3D effects were terrible, and yet all I could think was, “I wish there were more of these terrible effects.” When you know you have the option of three dimensions, how can you settle for just two?
Herzog has explained that 3D was necessary to capture the drama of the images that wrap around the protrusions and bulges of the Chauvet Cave, the subject of his universally lauded documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. These 25-30,000-year-old artworks, two-dimensional images in a three-dimensional space, are as sculptural as they are painterly—as if in some way already about the problem of their own documentation.
The paintings are astonishing. They are beautiful to look at. And the cave itself is a wonder, glittering with stalagmites protruding from the dirt like eyeteeth and stalactites drooling down from the cave’s roof, its ground littered with crystal-encrusted skulls like the abandoned love-children of some prehistoric tryst between Damien Hirst and Louise Bourgeois, its walls decorated with bold, expressive paintings of horses, rhinos, lions and panthers and bears. If cave paintings are your thing, it is unmissable. But the fact remains that while Chauvet is a mysterious, inspiring, awesome cave, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not an especially good movie.
Unexpectedly, the most visually interesting shots in Cave of Forgotten Dreams are not those inside the cave—they are outside, in a field, where one of Herzog’s subjects demonstrates how the cave-dwellers threw spears. What’s interesting about this scene is that the spear is tossed away from the camera, not pushed on your face like the paintings. What’s more, you can’t quite find your 3D footing in these deep outdoor shots. The effect is subtle, a slight heightening of the senses like you get when you’re waiting for a hallucinogenic drug to kick in. You get that tingle of trying to find the line between altered and unaltered states, which can’t ever be seen from either side.
The technology to make images pop out in space preceded the technology to make them move. For 150 years, 3D has come back around every twenty-five years or so, always dying to fight another day. But it has not been, and I doubt it ever will be, the singular revolution in motion picture art that sound was.
What’s clever about Cave of Forgotten Dreams is how it stages that war between sound and image, an emblem of the history of film itself. But what’s disappointing is that it throws the fight. Herzog’s documentaries have been a journey from image toward sound—the sound of his own voice. His films, like many people’s, have always recorded his own inner life. But never to such little purpose. The narration here is hectoring, buffoonish. He calls for silence for the sole purpose of interrupting. “These images are the memories of long-forgotten dreams,” he tells us. “Is this their heartbeat or ours?” he asks, adding a canned heartbeat to the soundtrack for emphasis. “We are locked in history, and they”—the presumed timelord dwellers of the Chauvet Cave—“are not.” Strangely, he has made a history film that almost entirely dispenses with history.
There are other titles he could have given this project—Cave of Forgotten People or Cave Hidden Due to Passage of Long Time or even Cave of Forgotten Cave Paintings. But he went with Forgotten Dreams. Unlike Patricio Guzmán, whose excellent Nostalgia for the Light combines history and science and art to make a movie that is political down to its marrow, that bristles with power and that cedes all attention to the fascinating people on view, Herzog likes to riff. His being so persistently in the way would be fine if he had something of value to add. But self-consciousness as such is neither pleasing nor an excuse. His personality, like 3D itself, comes to bury the film. His voice drapes over and suffocates everything, even the walls that he is not permitted to touch, that he is barely permitted to breathe on. (The public cannot visit Chauvet Cave because the authorities want to avoid the mold that was formed by human breath in the caves of Lascaux.)
Not-touching is a big deal. The best part of 3D, better even than wearing the glasses, may be swatting your hand through the image that dangles in front of your face. This is a much more immediate form of not-touching than the not-touching that has been a constant of moviegoing for a hundred years. And given that the genre that has always been most vexed about what you can and can’t touch is pornography, it should be no surprise that one of the milestones of the recent 3D canon is Piranha 3D.
Piranha 3D was made to do one thing better than anyone had ever done it before: to put adult entertainment stars in an R-rated movie and hurl points of light in the shape of their breasts through the air and into the field of audience vision. It does this. But Piranha, perhaps even against its own intentions, is more than the visual gags of Piranha 3D. The manic glee and giddy terror of its gnarly, nasty, porny gore, its relentless physical rocketing of limbs and blood, surpasses its own low expectations. It has what Tron: Legacy lacks: a story. (And such low-budget-looking special effects that making them 3D was nothing but a good joke.) A twisted allegory of recent US involvement in Iraq, Piranha features a band of hard-partying Americans who land in a desert paradise, where they accidentally awake a sleeper cell of deadly fighters, who attack and kill with impunity, leaving a trail of amputees in their wake. It’s a fable of the unknown and the unknowable, a brief for good manners and environmental responsibility, an audience-indicting celebration and indictment of raunch culture. And there are caves—cool mint-colored underground lairs, where snapping mechanical jaws of death are hatched. Unlike the cave in Forgotten Dreams, which is haunted by ghosts, Piranha’s caves are alive. The past, they teach us, will not wait for you to discover it. It will rise up and eat you as you innocently while away the afternoon on a party boat.
Art, I think, ought to do more than replicate the conditions of life. 3D is presented as an escape from the everyday, but we live in 3D—it’s the not-3D that’s the escape, the vacation from insects that buzz in your face or cars that zoom up out of nowhere or the people that hover around your desk. Besides, some things are just better in two dimensions. Remember that shot on Seinfeld that turned George dodging traffic into a game of Frogger? The three dimensions of life became the horizontal planes of an ancient arcade game, all the bumps smoothed away. Flatness is a solution to the problem of navigating the world. It is not itself a problem to be solved.
It’s not like there’s a shortage of thriving three-dimensional arts—we have theater, fashion, architecture, design, installation, performance. But I don’t always want to be in the same room with the things I’m looking at. Mostly I just want to be looking at them. The nice thing about going to the movies is that it is, or was, an experience-based art whose experience takes place wholly in your mind. There aren’t even pages to turn.
It’s worth noting that the contemporary directors who are experimenting with 3D—Cameron and Herzog will soon be joined by Miike, Godard, and Bertolucci—are not themselves already known for rigorous investigations of deep space. It’s hard to imagine Welles, Visconti, or Kubrick needing 3D. They may have wanted to play with the technology, but their films were already three dimensional investigations of the limits of illusion. And by pushing on the limits of two dimensions, they were often able to draw attention to the one that will never pop out of the frame—the fourth. When the camera tracks through the Prince of Salinas’s rooms in The Leopard, down the hall and past the chamberpots and through the windows and out to the sparkling landscape, it pulls space-time in its wake. It sweeps you, too, into history.
Today 3D is used to sweep history into the dustbin. The problem with Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not an excess of imagination, it’s a lack of it. “Nothing is real,” Herzog observes of some albino crocodiles, as his camera records precisely the opposite fact, these fleshly marvels dwelling among us. His movie does exactly what the worst of 3D technology has done. It mistakes reality for a dream. For all of Herzog’s chatter about souls, he makes a fetish of sticks and stones. His thinking is superficial and literal and sophomoric. His art is the ultimate achievement of 3D as we now know it. It keeps you so busy looking that you can’t see anything.